Shortly after touching down at Frankfurt Airport, the integrated ingenuity of Deutsche Bahn Railways soon had me slicing through well-tended fields, groaning with new season strawberries, on a two hour train ride south to Freiburg. Not only is Freiburg is the gateway to the Black Forest, but this magnificent medieval town wields nuggets of delight at every turn. Despite being smashed up in World War Two, the town centre’s wraparound medieval atmosphere has been impeccably restored and it instantly casts you under its spell.
My Freiburg roost was Central Hotel a gorgeous boutique getaway, just a ten minute walk from the railway station. Tastefully appointed and homely accommodations, a delicious buffet breakfast more in keeping with a five-star hotel and winning customer service for hire all make for a winning stay. Despite its prime location in the heart of the old town, request an upper floor guestroom and you will sleep like a baby, cocooned in comfort.
The occasional motorist certainly knows their place in their pecking order in this pedestrian-centric town, which you are best to free-roam on foot. My Old Town exploratory began by the Old Town Hall, a series of houses constructed in the mid-1500s that were converted into a municipal meeting place. Overlooking Rathausplatz which was buzzing with inventive street theatre, I admired the 14th century former Franciscan Monastery, painstakingly restored after WWII. The square’s fountain depicts the “inventor of gunpowder”, Berthold Schwarz.
Wending my way through the narrow lanes, the glittering jewel of Munsterplatz swept me up with its daily frenzy of market colour. The Munster itself is a Gothic masterpiece which took a whopping 300 years to complete. Embellished with dozens of gargoyles, one creature cheekily bares his backside in full view of the old Bishop’s Palace. Supposedly the stonemason who sculpted this gargoyle did so in protest at the appalling rate of pay. In a stroke of good timing, I happened to be standing in the square, when a vast ceremonial procession of men in swirling robes marched through the square, en-route to the church, for the mass-ordination of a fresh crop of priests. Apart from Sunday, the cathedral square plays host to a bustling farmers’ market, heaving with produce, guided by the seasons.
It’s been a Freiburg fixture ever since the city was given market rights in 1120 and the ordered division of the market is still observed today. On the south side of the Munster, it’s all about culinary treats and specialties, spanning antipasti, aromatic spices and nougat. Local handicrafts, original ceramics and woodwork also do a brisk trade on the south side. The north side is devoted to local and seasonal home-grown crops from the beautiful farmlands around Freiburg. Alongside the bounty of local fruit and vegetables, regional meat, fish, cheeses and breads completes the platter of temptations. You can interact with the producers and purveyors – many who hail from families who have sold their goods at this market for centuries. It’s also a perfect opportunity to sample some regional delicacies, like Freiburg’s signature bratwurst, the “Lange Rote” and Stefan’s Cheesecake.
The square is lined by a splendid collection of townhouses and buildings traversing Gothic to Rococo style, from where vibrant al fresco cafes spill across the cobbles. The five hundred year old Kornhaus, was lovingly reconstructed in 1970. Similarly, the Kaufhaus, the original merchants hall, boasts richly adorned gables and ground-floor arcades. Next door, the imposing baroque palace of medieval knights, which later became the Archbishop’s Palace. Today it’s home to the cathedral choir school. Wandering out of the square, many of the old narrow lanes also served as fast-flowing canals, draining excess surface water, providing a trusty source of water for animals, but above all for fire protection. In the Middle Ages, Freiburg was frequently wracked by fire. The main channel for these old canals can be seen in Herrenstrasse.
Another must-see street is Konviktstrasse, an award-winning example of civic restoration, with a mix of new and old townhouses preserving their original facades which forms a heart-stealing ensemble. Verdant garlands of leafy vines leap across the lane from the top-storeys of the townhouses. Many of them house glamorous boutiques, exclusive antiques and gorgeous homeware stores. Pint-sized independent shops are a hallmark of Freiburg’s retail mix. Window-shopping here will sweep you up in retail seduction. At the end of Konviktstrasse, I admired the decorative exterior of the Roten Baren. This is Germany’s oldest guesthouse, continuously welcoming its doors to the world since 1387. Freiburg’s 13th century fortifications have all but been dismantled, apart from some prominent fangs, like St. Martin’s Gate, which was spectacularly revitalised in 1900. The other notable fortification gate is the Schwabentor, built in 1200, just down from Roten Baren. A large painting of the city’s patron saint, St. George, adorns the tower.
I also took a walkabout with a charming city guide, Sabine, who revealed even more gems, like the stumble stones sprinkled across the cobbles of Freiburg. These brass plaques pay tribute to locals who were deported, and in many cases murdered, at the hands of Nazi persecution. Sabine also led me to a charming little square, particularly popular as a meeting point for the city’s sizeable student population, late at night. Several years ago, a colour-coded “Pillar of Tolerance” was installed in the square, which changes colour based on noise levels, encouraging the party-crowd to quieten down so that residents adjoining the square can get some sleep. Needless to say, it’s been an epic fail.
Sabine also introduced me to Augustiner Museum, which quite simply is an unmissable Freiburg highlight. Housed in the former monastery and church of the Augustinian hermits, dating back to the 13th century, their trove of religious art is intoxicating. Spanning the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Baroque era, the luminous medieval stained-glass windows are particularly sublime, while the mystically displayed collection of life-sized statuary of prophets and gargoyles is a show-stopper.
Purring through the Black Forest and Alsace region by train is an unforgettably photogenic experience, flanking the Rhine River. Purchase a pass to suit your needs, in advance from Rail Europe, the experts in great rail travel. www.raileurope.co.nz
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